Study design: Telephone interviews were conducted with a random sample of adults in 4437 North Carolina households. The response rate was 79%.
Objective: The prevalence of low back pain and the correlates of care-seeking in a defined population were examined.
Summary of background data: Previous research on low back pain has used varying definitions of the illness of low back pain, and has admixed patients with acute and chronic low back pain. Acute low back pain was examined in this study as a distinct phenomenon separate from chronic low back pain.
Methods: Respondents completed a detailed interview regarding the occurrence of and care sought for back pain in 1991. Acute back pain was defined as functionally limiting pain lasting less than 3 months.
Results: From this sample, 485 individuals had at least one occurrence of acute severe low back pain in 1991, representing 7.6% of the adult population. Symptoms were reported less commonly in individuals older than age 60 years (5% vs. 8.5%) and in nonwhites compared with whites (5% vs. 8.5%). Thirty-nine percent of those with back pain sought medical care; 24% sought care initially from an allopathic physician, 13% from a chiropractor, and 2% from other providers. More prolonged pain, more severe pain, and sciatica were associated with care-seeking. Gender, income, age, rural residence, and health insurance status did not correlate with the decision to seek medical care. Younger age, male gender, and nonjob-related pain did correlate with the decision to seek care from a chiropractor.
Conclusions: Acute back pain is common. Care is often sought regardless of income and insurance status. Seeing a health care provider for acute back pain may not be discretionary from the perspective of the patient.